UNCG BIO 370 — Natural History of the Vertebrates

Supplementary Notes on Teleology and Evolution

Under a teleological view of history or evolution, the end-point (the telos) is fore-ordained—it is embedded in the beginning—and everything in history is being “pulled forward” toward that pre-established goal. That is indeed how individual human actions often work: I want to eat (that is my goal, my telos, and it lies in the future); therefore I get up, put on my coat, and trudge out through the snow, in order to arrive at the telos of food. All my actions were being “pulled by a future end-point” which I had chosen in my mind. But think how odd this is: a projected future is causing things to happen in the past. That is not at all how we think of natural (non-conscious) events taking place: in the physical world we take it for granted that causes precede effects: things happen in the physical world because they are being “pushed from behind” in a sense, not because they are being “pulled from the future.”

Teleological thinking is very common in Western civilization, however, and is embedded in much traditional Judaeo-Christian thought. (I don’t know enough about other religions to be able to comment on them I’m afraid, but if you do I’d be glad to learn from you.) The traditional Christian view of history is a providential view: things unfold according to God’s pre-ordained plan, whether we understand that plan or not. Here are three examples expressing this view:

(1) John Page writing to Thomas Jefferson during the military chaos at the beginning of the American Revolution, 20 July 1776: “Do you not think an Angel rides in the Whirlwind and directs this Storm?”

(2) Emily Dickinson, writing about 1860, on how everything happens for some pre-ordained purpose, even if we don’t know what that purpose is:

I shall know why, when Time is over
And I have ceased to wonder why –
Christ will explain each separate anguish
In the fair schoolroom of the sky.

(3) Herman Melville writing incandescently in his 1850 novel White-Jacket. (If I ever write a paragraph this beautiful I would be content to die on the spot and rest peacefully in the knowledge that I had done One Great Thing in my life.) Just as Paley the landsman made God into a Great Watchmaker, see how Melville the mariner makes God into a Great Shipwright:

As a Man-of-War that sails through the sea, so this earth that sails through the air. We mortals are all on board a fast-sailing, never-sinking world-frigate, of which God was the shipwright; and she is but one craft in a Milky-Way fleet, of which God is the Lord High Admiral. The port we sail from is forever astern. And though far out of sight of land, for ages and ages we continue to sail with sealed orders, and our last destination remains a secret to ourselves and our officers; yet our final haven was predestinated ere we slipped from the stocks at Creation.1

A teleological view of evolution would say that there is some pre-ordained end-point, and that the evolutionary process is somehow “pulling life forward” toward that end-point. The cartoon character Calvin, mentioned in class and in my own paper on the subject, knew what that endpoint was: it was him of course. And for people who think this way it is usually humans, and believe it or not it is often white, European humans, who are identified with this end-point.

I think this view of evolution is mistaken, because I think if you look at how the evolutionary process actually works in detail (variation, overproduction, natural selection, drift, local adaptation) there is no place in that process where any end-point, any telos, is embedded. Darwin and his American colleague Asa Gray debated this very point, with Gray seeking to retain some sort of directedness within the “stream of variation” and Darwin asking whether this was truly plausible:

To take a crucial example [Darwin wrote to Gray, in response to Gray’s 1860 review of On Origin of Species in the Atlantic Monthly], you lead me to infer (p. 414) that you believe “that variation has been led along certain beneficial lines”.—I cannot believe this, & I think you would have to believe, that the tail of the Fan-tail was led to vary in the number & direction of its feathers in order to gratify the caprice of a few men. Yet if the fan-tail had been a wild bird & had used its abnormal tail for some special end, as to sail before the wind, unlike other birds, everyone would have said what a beautiful & designed adaptation.

Even though, just as Darwin had argued, no telos can be found within the evolutionary process, many people still do think of evolution in teleological terms, some because they consciously hold a religious viewpoint (as did the Presbyterian Gray), and others because (in my view) they just haven’t thought about it carefully enough to see that it is wrong.

The American philosopher Chauncey Wright was one of the most perceptive writers on teleology in history and science, well before most people grasped it in an evolutionary context. “Teleology,” he wrote, “is a subtile poison, and lurks where least suspected. The facts of the sciences which Dr. Whewell calls palaetiological [the sciences of historical reconstruction], like the various branches of geology [and evolution], and every actual concrete series of events which together form an object of interest to us, are apt, unless we are fully acquainted with the actual details through observation or by actual particular deductions from well-known particular facts and general laws, to fall into a dramatic procession in our imaginations. The mythic instinct slips into the place of the chronicles at every opportunity. All history is written on dramatic principles.” (Chauncey Wright, North American Review, April 1865.)

There are, however, some wonderful fictional examples of teleological evolution. The best one is the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “The Chase” which tells the story of an ancient humanoid race that seeded the galaxy with the beginnings of life, and over billions of years the evolutionary mechanisms they designed played out in the same way on all the separate planets to produce the same pre-ordained humanoid result. There was an Angel in the evolutionary whirlwind, directing the storm. But in reality as opposed to fiction, when you look down among the biological details, no angels can be found.


1. Melville’s compelling teleological epilogue to White Jacket deserves to be read in full. It continues:

Thus sailing with sealed orders, we ourselves are the repositories of the secret packet, whose mysterious contents we long to learn. There are no mysteries out of ourselves. But let us not give ear to the superstitious, gun-deck gossip about whither we may be gliding, for, as yet, not a soul on board of us knows—not even the Commodore himself; assuredly not the Chaplain; even our Professor’s scientific surmisings are vain. On that point, the smallest cabin-boy is as wise as the Captain. And believe not the hypochondriac dwellers below hatches, who will tell you, with a sneer, that our world-frigate is bound to no final harbor whatever; that our voyage will prove an endless circumnavigation of space. Not so. For how can this world-frigate prove our eventual abiding place, when, upon first embarkation, as infants in arms, her violent rolling—in after life unperceived—makes every soul of us sea-sick? Does not this show, too, that the very air we here inhale is uncongenial, and only becomes endurable at last through gradual habituation, and that some blessed, placid haven, however remote at present, must be in store for us all?

Glance fore and aft our flush decks. What a swarming crew! All told, they muster hard upon eight hundred millions of souls. Over these we have authoritative Lieutenants, a sword-belted Officer of Marines, a Chaplain, a Professor, a Purser, a Doctor, a Cook, a Master-at-arms.

Oppressed by illiberal laws, and partly oppressed by themselves, many of our people are wicked, unhappy, inefficient. We have skulkers and idlers all round, and brow-beaten waisters, who, for a pittance, do our craft’s shabby work. Nevertheless, among our people we have gallant fore, main, and mizen top-men aloft, who, well treated or ill, still trim our craft to the blast.

We have a brig for trespassers; a bar by our main-mast, at which they are arraigned; a cat-o’-nine-tails and a gangway, to degrade them in their own eyes and in ours. These are not always employed to convert Sin to Virtue, but to divide them, and protect Virtue and legalised Sin from unlegalised Vice.

We have a Sick-bay for the smitten and helpless, whither we hurry them out of sight, and, however they may groan beneath hatches, we hear little of their tribulations on deck; we still sport our gay streamer aloft. Outwardly regarded, our craft is a lie; for all that is outwardly seen of it is the clean-swept deck, and oft-painted planks comprised above the water-line; whereas, the vast mass of our fabric, with all its store-room of secrets, forever slides along far under the surface.

When a shipmate dies, straightway we sew him up, and overboard he goes; our world-frigate rushes by, and never more do we behold him again; though, sooner or later, the everlasting under-tow sweeps him toward our own destination.

We have both a quarter-deck to our craft and a gun-deck; subterranean shot-lockers and gunpowder magazines; and the Articles of War form our domineering code.

Oh, shipmates and world-mates, all round! we the people suffer many abuses. Our gun-deck is full of complaints. In vain from Lieutenants do we appeal to the Captain; in vain—while on board our world-frigate—to the indefinite Navy Commissioners, so far out of sight aloft. Yet the worst of our evils we blindly inflict upon ourselves; our officers cannot remove them, even if they would. From the last ills no being can save another; therein each man must be his own saviour. For the rest, whatever befall us, let us never train our murderous guns inboard; let us not mutiny with bloody pikes in our hands. Our Lord High Admiral will yet interpose; and though long ages should elapse, and leave our wrongs unredressed, yet, shipmates and world-mates! let us never forget, that,

Whoever afflict us, whatever surround,
Life is a voyage that’s homeward-bound!

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